The Nintendo NES Classic Games, Ranked By What to Play First

Nintendo NES Classic games ranked

The Tickle-Me-Elmo. The Tamagotchi. The Razor scooter. The iPod. Christmas seasons are embossed by a best-selling item that sends shoppers into a frenzy, and this year it's the Nintendo NES Classic , a throwback video game system that bombards your TV with retro-'80s gaming kitsch. The NES Classic is an alternative gaming platform, reissued for those made dizzy by 2016's best XBox and Playstation games, or anyone who can't figure out how to download Super Mario Run. Which explains why it's selling out quickly; deals at Best Buy, Gamestop, and Amazon sent the units flying off digital shelves. 

Anyone who nabs a Nintendo NES Classic will be faced with a giant question on Christmas day: where to start? The system is pre-loaded with 30 titles from Nintendo's library, all classics, all ranging in quality. So we're making it easy on you (because the deal-chasing surely wore you out). Here's a full list of the NES Classic games, ranked from worst to best, so you know exactly how to spend your holiday break:

30. Balloon Fight (1986)

Fly around, collect all the shiny bits, and try to pop balloons before your balloons get popped. Nintendo's version of Joust was easy like Sunday morning -- maybe too easy.

29. StarTropics (1990)

A fun, lethargic retread of the Zelda formula, StarTropics attempted to kick off a US-exclusive franchise that died after one just title. You did, however, get to take out enemies with a yo-yo. So there's that.

Super C on NES Classic
Super C | Nintendo

28. Super C (1988)

Otherwise known as Super Contra, the home version of Konami's hit arcade top-down-side-scroller was less skill-based and more pray-to-win. Simply shoot, run, and die, and then dull your pain with your countless viewing of Rambo III.

27. Mario Bros. (1986)

A rough draft for the way more famous Mario titles that followed, this part of the challenging but repetitive 1983 Nintendo arcade game finds our plucky plumber (and Luigi, in his screen debut, in multiplayer mode!) collecting coins and battling irritated critters in the sewers.

Ice Climber on Nintendo Classic
Ice Climber | Nintendo

26. Ice Climber (1985)

Two strange mountaineers scale slippery platforms to steal vegetables from an angry condor. Based on a true story (probably?).

25. Tecmo Bowl (1989)

The original, 8-bit precursor to the Madden franchise, Tecmo Bowl stood out from its '80s peers by offering you the chance to control real NFL players. Bo Jackson knows: always choose the unstoppable LA Raiders.

24. Dr. Mario (1990)

This Tetris-esque block-puzzle game with a memorable soundtrack sorta makes us wish that the mini-NES just included Tetris.

Kirby's Adventure on Nintendo Classic
Kirby's Adventure | Nintendo

This late-period NES game took the goofy, kid-friendly character from the Game Boy to the TV set.

Similar to Zelda II, the sequel to Castlevania folded in a handful of RPG elements, including shops, NPCs, and a traversable world map. This partially explains why it also wasn't as successful.

21. Gradius (1986)

With its kickin' soundtrack, the side-scrolling space shooter Gradius allowed gamers to decide how to pimp their plucky sci-fi vessel: with extra guns or with shields. There's nothing like the taste of freedom.

20. Donkey Kong Jr. (1986)

Nintendo cast Mario as the villain for its vexing 1982 sequel to Donkey Kong (ported to NES four years later), and he's kind of a dick. Enter the kid of Kong, wearing a one-piece romper.

click to play video

You'd think that this OG NES title, which remains a cornerstone of home console gaming and the source of that music that you will literally never get out of your head, Super Mario Bros. would top this list. But that's a testament to other titles in this essential franchise.

18. Excitebike (1985)

One of the original NES launch titles, Excitebike was the 8-bit version of today's very best racing games. It demanded actual (read: relative) precision while also allowing gamers to design their own racetracks.

17. Donkey Kong (1986)

A port of the 1981 gem that introduced Mario and Donkey Kong to the world (and later served as the subject of the amazing 2007 documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters), this seemingly easy but insanely challenging platform game will never not come to mind when you pick up a hammer.

Bubble Bobble on Nintendo Classic
Bubble Bobble | Nintendo

16. Bubble Bobble (1988)

This simple, addictive platformer, produced by Taito in the Mr. Do! style, shared all the colorful charm of Kirby with its adorable blue-green dragon duo. But underneath the happy-go-lucky surface were multiple endings and secret difficulty modes, which were only revealed if players won the game in a particular way.

15. Pac-Man (1985)

Rocket science, this port of Namco's monster 1981 arcade hit ain't, especially if you learn the patterns. Gotta chomp those dots!

14. Galaga (1988)

A pillar from the golden age of arcade games, first released in 1981. Clear out the rows of alien vessels descending toward your lone ship… then go re-watch The Last Starfighter.  

This would be top five if it still featured Mike Tyson (Nintendo's license on his name ran out in 1990)!! But the iconic Punch-Out!! (with its iconic exclamation points!!) is still quite possibly the best boxing game ever created!! Soda Popinski, how we miss you!!

Kid Icarus on Nintendo Classic
Kid Icarus | Nintendo

12. Kid Icarus (1987)

Chronicling the exploits of a winged, arrow-shooting hero with a propensity for falling to his death, this game never met the same success as Metroid or Castlevania but still holds a special place for nostalgic gamers.

This inventive sequel took all the elements of the original, added a vivid and artistic new design, and introduced a handful of playable characters with unique abilities. Welcome to actual gameplay, Princess Toadstool!

Unwilling to simply re-do what worked the first time, Nintendo shifted Zelda II from a top-down action title to a side-scrolling, quasi-RPG. What might easily have been a massive misfire ended up defining the series' commitment to reinvention.

One of early gaming's most unforgiving titles, this medieval-horror romp earned its fame for forcing the player to beat the game twice in order to face the final monster, and also stripping its hero of his knightly armor down to his tighty-whities.

Allowing gamers to rough up '80s-style gang members while dressed in retro-punk chic, Double Dragon II may just be the greatest beat'em-up ever created.

Ninja Gaiden on Nintendo Classic
Ninja Gaiden | Nintendo

7. Ninja Gaiden (1989)

With its insane difficulty level, Ninja Gaiden was one of the first games to warrant throwing your controller against the wall. Thankfully, your katana, shuriken, and magical "ninpo" abilities were as fun to use as they were hard to master.

6. Mega Man 2 (1989)

The original Mega Man was hardly the hit that most remember. In fact, the iconic franchise didn’t take off until its sequel improved upon the boss-fight, power-up formula of the first. The pellet-shooting, blue-hued cyborg looked better and played smoother the second time around, blasting the franchise into gaming history.

5. Final Fantasy (1990)

The world is veiled in darkness... That's also what would happen if the genre-cementing Final Fantasy (originally released in Japan in 1987), a franchise that's still going strong today, were erased from history.

4. Castlevania (1987)

Dubbed "Metroidvania" at the time, Castlevania took the intricate world design of Metroid and shifted it from sci-fi firmly into fantasy-horror. With a gothic look, a host of classic creatures and an arsenal of medieval weapons, Castlevania introduced the world to the Belmont clan, the vampire world’s answer to pulp adventurers like Indiana Jones.

Metroid on Nintendo Classic
Metroid | Nintendo

3. Metroid (1987)

Metroid did little to guide gamers across its vast alien landscape, a design that would come to define an entire sub-genre of gaming. It also featured one of Nintendo's most memorable villains: the squishy, iconic Mother Brain.

The OG action-RPG, The Legend of Zelda offered up a sprawling, hugely explorable world that felt, at the time, like a portal into the Lord of the Rings books. With an iconic character, a terrific open-world and addictive gameplay, Zelda will always rank among Nintendo's elite.

Super Mario Bros. 3 offered up a unique combination of elements, criss-crossing genres in an insanely satisfying way. With a top-down, RPG feel, the colorful, 2D platforming of the original, and a slew of exceptionally fun power-ups, the third chapter was hands-down the best of the original series.

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Christopher Monfette writes about video games for Thrillist (and is already ranking the best titles of the year). Follow him on Twitter: @cwmonfette.